There are a number of ways to add infrastructure to the inside of a wedding cake or sculpted cake so it doesn’t collapse. After building 1000+ custom cakes using a variety of systems including wood dowels, SPS and bubble tea straws, I’ve concluded that wood dowels are the most dependable, affordable, and versatile method of all.
4 Benefits to Using Wood Dowels
#1 They’re Dependable
Wood dowels are sturdy enough to support a lot of weight. Provided the cake itself is stable and its dowels are oriented correctly within, you can achieve great heights using this method. Dowels hold up well during transport so you can complete a whole 3-tiered cake in your kitchen then deliver it in one piece. It even works for precarious cakes likes the topsy turvy style.
#2 They’re Affordable
Wood dowels cost a lot less than plastic plate separating system and other newfangled products designed for cake stacking (at the end of this tutorial, I cover the pros and cons of other methods).
#3 They’re Accessible
Since dowels are commonly used for all kinds of projects, they are easy to find in craft or hardware stores.
#4 They’re Versatile
Since wood dowels are sold in a variety of thicknesses and lengths, they can be bought and trimmed to accommodate any size or shape of cake. Moreover, they can be cut flat on the ends or sharpened to make the two kinds of support columns needed to properly stabilize a cake.
Cake Dowel Basics
- This dowel method involves hiding cardboard and wooden rods inside a sculpted or multi-tiered cake.
- Without being seen, these non-edible interior supports hold the cake up.
- There are two kinds of dowels involved with this system.
SHORT DOWELS lend vertical support to a cake, preventing it from getting squished or crushed by the cake stacked above.
LONG POINTED DOWELS lend horizontal support, preventing the tiers of the cake from sliding side-to-side or slipping apart.
VIDEO #1: How to Use Wood Dowels in Stacked Cakes
VIDEO #2: Stacked Cake Assembly Using Wood Dowels
Best Kind of Dowels to Buy
I like the Wilton 12″ long, 1/4″ diameter bamboo rods (commission earned). They are stiffer than most kinds of wood and cut more cleanly as well. This is my go-to dowel for both short vertical supports and long pointed supports. As for thicker support dowels, I buy those at the hardware store so I can pick my preferred sizes.
List of Items Needed
- Long wood skewer/s (commission earned)
- Pen or marker
- Cardboard base for each cake (commission earned)
- White tape (optional)
- Dowels: 12″ Wilton Dowel Rods or 1/2″ wood dowels (commission earned)
- Saw; for smaller dowels, large pet nail clippers work great (commission earned)
- Pencil sharpener (or knife for whittling)
- Sand paper
- Apple corer, for use with thick dowels only (commission earned)
The Purpose of Cake Cardboards
Every tier of every cake should get paired with a cardboard base (commission earned) that is the same shape/size of the intended result. For example a 7” round cake gets paired with a 7” round cardboard. In cases where the cake is oddly shaped, cut a custom cardboard base with a serrated knife.
This is not part of the presentation as it will never show. The cardboard base offers support and functionality to each tier of the cake. It’s meant to stay with its tier from the first moment it is frosted to the point when it gets served. Once it’s frosted, the tier and its cardboard will be fully fused.
Working with Short Vertical Support Dowels
I refer to dowels that support the weight of cake tier/s above as short support dowels or vertical support columns. They play a very important role in holding the cake up.
How Many Dowels Are Needed?
Depending on the size of the tier and the amount that will be stacked on top of it, anywhere from three to seven dowels may be needed to achieve stability.
Above is a graphic depicting how I would orient the vertical dowel supports inside each tier of cake that is stacked up to five tiers high. The top tier doesn’t need any vertical support dowels unless you plan to put a heavy topper on it, such as a ceramic figurine. The dotted yellow line indicates where the next tier in the stack will sit so you can see approximately how far inside that boundary I like to place dowels. Remember to take that under consideration before you pick your spots.
Tip: Core out Space for Thicker Dowels
TRICK: How to Measure Short Vertical Support Dowels
Once a cake tier is fully frosted, it’s time to measure its interior height in order to determine the length of interior support dowels needed. I’ve found the most accurate way to do this is by inserting a lollypop stick or long wood skewer (commission earned) dull-side-down through the cake until it hits the cardboard base. With a pen or pencil, mark the skewer at the point where it meets the cake’s surface. Then pull the skewer out of the cake and use its mark to measure the dowels for cutting.
I’ve found that I get better results when I use the skewer’s mark minus 1/8” (3 mm) to determine the length to cut dowels. Making them just a little bit short guarantees the two tiers being joined will touch all the way around. A seal between tiers maximizes stability.
How to Cut Wood Dowels with Clippers
How to Cut Wood Dowels with a Handheld Saw
Another option is to use a handheld reciprocating saw (commission earned) like the one seen in the photo above. It is not the most accurate tool. It cuts aggressively and is quite likely to splinter the wood. But it gets the job done. Whenever using the type of tool that saws back and forth, it helps to first secure the dowels together with tape so their ends are flush. Then mark and cut them all at once. That way, they come out even.
A miter box (commission earned)as seen in the lower right hand corner of the photo above, may be used to assist the process of trimming dowels with a saw. A miter box is a gadget that holds the wood against slats, which guide the saw blade into making straight cuts.
How to Cut Wood Dowels with a Tabletop Saw
Sanding the Ends of Dowels
Once the dowels have been sanded, stand them on end together to compare their lengths and make sure they are all uniform and level. If they aren’t uniform and level, fix it. Otherwise, you may end up with a crooked cake. Below is an example of how short support dowels look on the base tier of a boat cake. You can see each dowel lies just below the frosted surface. They are configured to support the weight of a tier that has matching dimensions. A couple of thicker dowels are positioned at points where extra weight is due to be stacked above.
When to Insert Vertical Support Dowels into a Cake
The best time to insert this kind of dowel is shortly after frosting when the cake is somewhere in between refrigerator and room temperature. I naturally hit this point after just completing the final coat of frosting or just after the cake has been covered in fondant or wrapped in modeling chocolate. At that point in the process, I’ve had the cakes out at room temperature for long enough that the surfaces are soft and pliable. Then is when cakes tend to be the most tolerant of the pressure of being penetrated by dowels. I chill the cake while measuring and cutting the dowels, just to help the surface set. Then as soon as the dowels are ready, I insert them.
Remember to add short support dowels before the cake tiers are stacked.
Where to Insert Vertical Support Dowels
Always distribute vertical support dowels so that they most evenly absorb the weight that will be pressed upon them from above. For circular cakes, arrange them in a circular shape. For square cakes, arrange them in a square. In the example below, the dowels have been angled to accommodate an offset tier.
Working with Pointed Horizontal Support Dowels
Two pointed dowels is just the right amount to join cake tiers together. I like to interlock tiers in the following way.
Note: what the graphic above fails to depict is that with each tier in a stacked cake, I rotate the insertion points. For instance, the bottom + middle tier insertion points will be at 12 and 6 o’clock. The top tier will insertion points will be at 3 and 9 o’clock. The goal is to space these kinds of tiers out evenly throughout the cake. This helps the cake resist horizontal force from any direction.
Some bakers prefer to insert one super long dowel through the middle of the entire cake. A single long dowel is satisfactory but not ideal. It’s harder to handle, more challenging to insert. It poses a risk since the cake can spin on its axis. I’ve learned the hard way that the vibrations of a long car ride can jiggle a tier loose, making it spinny or worse, wobbly. It may only spin a little bit, no more than a fraction of an inch back and forth, but that’s enough to stretch and squish the piped border, frosting and details along that seal. If the loose tier wobbles back and forth, that’s even worse as it can throw the whole cake out of balance.
The lesson learned here is to always use two long pointed support dowels per set of tiers being joined. One is not enough. Three is too many, unless the cake is gigantic (3+ feet high) or complicated in shape. Two pointed dowels per level is usually just right.
How to Measure Pointed Cake Dowels
This kind of dowel does not need to be precisely measured. It’s length can be eyeballed. The only criteria is that it must be slightly shorter than the combined height of the tiers it is meant to join.
How to Sharpen Pointed Cake Dowels
Stacked Cake Assembly
When inserting long pointed dowels through tiers, press slowly but firmly with two thumbs. When the tip reaches the cardboard, you will feel its resistance.
At the point of resistance, tap the blunt end of the dowel with a hammer so it pierces the cardboard base. Once the point has bored a tight hole for the dowel to pass through, you can complete the job by hand. Push the dowels down so their butt ends are just below the surface of the cake. Rather than burying them deep out of sight, it’s better to cover them with decorations, leaving them discoverable for the person whose job it is to find and remove them later on.
GENERAL TIPS & TRICKS
TRICK: How to Remove Dowels from Inside a Cake
TIP: Add a Layer of Parchment Paper Between Tiers
Cut the parchment paper to the same exact size and shape as the base of the upper tier (i.e the one that will get stacked above) as those dimensions will provide you with an accurate boundary for orienting your dowels. When the time comes to place the upper tier down, it will help guide your physical placement of it.
The main purpose of placing a parchment paper liner between stacked tiers is to prevent them from fusing together. When there is no liner, the frosting from the lower tier gets stuck to the cardboard base of the upper tier. That means you only have one shot to place the upper tier down; wherever it lands is where it will stay (not ideal). With a parchment liner underneath each tier, you have more than one shot. You can use your offset spatula to shift, wiggle and adjust the upper tier until it sits in the right place. You can even lift off the tier if you need to make a big fix.
Much later, when it’s time to cut the cake, the parchment liner will come in handy one last time as it will make it easy to pull apart the joined tiers.
How to Use Wood Dowels in Sculpted Cakes
The trick to stabilizing large sculpted cakes with dowels is to consider the weight distribution of each given shape. Wherever the most force will get exerted, that’s where you want to place your thickest supports. Here is an example from start to finish of how four tiers became one giant 3D boat cake with the help of dowels and modeling chocolate. This wedding cake served over 100 people.
Bubble tea straws (commission earned) offer the advantage of being cheap and easier to cut than wood dowels. This method is fine for small projects (2-3 tier cakes) but I wouldn’t risk using it on larger stacked cakes, cake transport or any situation that involves movement of the cake. Hollow plastic straws can’t be whittled down to a point, which means they can’t be used to join tiers or lend horizontal support. This is my complaint: their usefulness is limited in scope.
The Separator Plate System, which involves a set of interlocking plastic columns and plates, is the least reliable option I’ve encountered in the bakery business. For one thing, it’s an expensive product for single use (if you can recover the parts and reuse them, it’s a better investment). The peskiest part is the plastic plate, which only comes in handy when the cake has elevated/separated tiers like this white wedding cake with fresh flowers.
For conventional stacked cakes with touching tiers, the plate adds so much bulk that it leaves a gap between tiers. That gap is not easy to hide. Worst of all, the plastic plate gets in the way of inserting long pointed horizontal support dowels through the cake, which means the cake can’t be adequately stabilized. Since you can’t stabilize it, you have no choice but to assemble every tier on site, which is more challenging (personally, I prefer to assemble cakes as much as I can before delivery).
Lastly, the plastic support columns tend to be chunky. They displace way more cake than I feel is necessary. Even the hollow columns, which are easier to work with than the thick kind, are much wider than they need to be. They are so wide, they lower your servings count. In conclusion, I’ve had more problems with this method than any other one I’ve ever tried so I can’t recommend it.
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